Forest Fight

May 1, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

PILOT: What we’re doing right now is traveling North onto the Cumberland Plateau.

TOM BEARDEN: Ken Davenport and Doug Murray are on a mission to monitor logging in Tennessee.

HUME DAVENPORT: Looks like an intermission stream right there.

DOUG MURRAY: Yeah, it does.

HUME DAVENPORT: There’s a stream crossing right there. Doug, look at this.

DOUG MURRAY: Yeah, we’ve got streams down there with a lot of trees laying in them.

TOM BEARDEN: They are the eyes in the sky for the Dogwood Alliance, a group of some 60 community organizations that are deeply concerned about the future of the forests in this region.

SPOKESMAN: That’s one of the first cuts that Hume and I found when we started this project about three years ago. When we first found it, it was only probably 200 or 300 acres. Now it’s up to probably 600 or 700 acres.

TOM BEARDEN: The alliance believes the native hardwood forest lands of the Southeastern U.S. are being decimated by a dramatic increase in clear-cut logging, a practice where virtually every tree is cut, as opposed to the selective cutting techniques used here in the past.

DOUG MURRAY: Now we’re looking mainly at water quality problems. From the air we can see stream crossings, places where the trucks and bulldozers are running through the streams, across the streams. We can see debris left in the streams, and in some cases, we can actually see silt and erosion channels leading right down into the streams.

TOM BEARDEN: Environmentalists say the heart of the problem is an influx of wood processing plants called chip mills. The mills convert timber into small chips, which are then shipped to paper mills to make high-grade paper.

DOUG MURRAY: There’s been an explosion of chip mills in the Southeast in just the last ten years. Ten years ago we had about 30 or 40 chip mills in the whole southeast. Now there’s over 150. As logging is declining in the Northwest, all of those companies are moving into the Southeast, and so we’re seeing this huge increase.

SPOKESMAN: Almost everything you’re bringing in is either rotten, hollow, crooked, defective in some way.

TOM BEARDEN: The chip mills process relatively small logs that traditional sawmills won’t buy, creating a market for timber that had no economic value before their arrival, and that’s changed the way timber is harvested here. Herbert Volner owns a sawmill near Parson. For the past 50 years, he practiced selective cutting when he bought timber from private landowners. He took only trees big enough to yield lumber, leaving behind the younger ones to mature for a future harvest.

HERBERT VOLNER, Saw Mill Operator: When we cut this, we cut it 16-inch diameter, 12 inches from the ground.

TOM BEARDEN: Yet with chip mills buying smaller timber, some landowners started clear-cutting their property. That prompted an unlikely alliance between environmentalists and some sawmill operators. Volmer is quick to volunteer that he’s no tree-hugger, but he’s against clear-cutting, too.

HERBERT VOLNER: If we’d clear-cut this forest the first time we were in here, there wouldn’t be any trees. This tree has done real well. This is pretty good soil here.

TOM BEARDEN: Volmer says if everybody clear-cuts, there won’t be any suitable timber for his mill to saw. But landowner Robert Harrison is grateful for the opportunity to sell timber that he and his family considered unmarketable.

ROBERT HARRISON, Land Owner: Suddenly we had a value… or a market for a lot of low-grade hardwood that is prevalent here on the plateau.

TOM BEARDEN: Harrison says loggers took pains to keep the clear-cut environmentally safe and points to this clear-flowing stream as proof that clear-cutting can be done without harming water quality.

ROBERT HARRISON: The common reaction around here is, "I don’t want nobody telling me what to do with my land." But if you look closely at a cornfield, it would look awful, too. Now, this is a bigger version of a crop. No one complains too much about a cornfield that’s been harvested.

TOM BEARDEN: The forest products industry says clear-cutting actually makes southeastern forests healthier.

CARLTON OWENS, Champion International: Clear-cut about four years ago, and you see the profusion of young hardwood growth here.

TOM BEARDEN: Carlton Owens works for champion international paper. He says clear-cuts benefit forests that have been selectively harvested for too long.

CARLTON OWENS: The hardwood forest that has been over a period of decades high-graded, which is where the landowner comes in and takes out the best trees, comes back in a few years later and takes out the best trees. It’s a little bit like a farmer who might have 100 cattle, sells the best bulls, the best cows. You do that repeatedly, you end up with a herd that’s very much diminished. And if you don’t sell the herd and start over, you’re not going to be able to sustain the business long term.

TOM BEARDEN: Owens says selective cutting leaves behind genetically inferior trees that are near the end of their life cycles, trees that will never grow any bigger. And he points to property like this, which was clear-cut four years ago, as proof that the practice does not destroy the land.

CARLTON OWENS: It’s amazing what the forest will do when you allow sunlight to reach the forest floor, the soil, the resurgence of the timber type. And you get all the diversity of not only the under-story species, but the trees are coming back, and they’re all straight and shooting for the sun.

TOM BEARDEN: But John Evans, Professor of Biology at the University of the South, says selective cutting does not hurt a forest’s commercial value.

JOHN EVANS, Biology Professor: The idea that if you go and you cut down certain trees and leave other trees, that the other ones represent genetically inferior individuals is nonsense in the sense that these trees, when they’re cut, they resprout back. Resprouting back is the same genetic individual. The idea that you’re changing the genetic composition of these forests in a high-grading or selective-cutting regime, there’s no data out there to support this. (Sound of industrial saws)

TOM BEARDEN: Evans is worried that chip mills have created economic conditions that are fundamentally changing the nature of the region’s forests. Some property owners are replanting their land with faster-growing pine trees in hopes of quicker profits. Evans calls them pine plantations. Evans found a 500% increase in pine acreage over the last 18 years.

JOHN EVANS: The concern that we have with the kinds of rapid changes that are occurring across the Cumberland Plateau, for example– industrial forest reconversion of hardwood, native hardwood ecosystems, these complex, biologically-rich ecosystems to a monocultural pine– is what does this mean down the line in terms of the natural heritage that future generations will be enjoying or living with in this region? And that’s a big question.

TOM BEARDEN: Mike Steck thinks clear- cutting could threaten his industry: Tourism. Steck is head of Environmental Affairs for Dagger International, maker of kayaks and canoes. He says bad timber management threatens the billions of dollars the recreation industry brings to the region.

MIKE STECK, Dagger: We are directly dependent on a healthy environment. Without a healthy environment, we’re not going to sell boats. And we employ 130 people in Rome County, Tennessee, which is a depressed area economically. We supply jobs. We supply a livelihood. People use our products to enjoy a wilderness experience, to get out on the water, to paddle beautiful waters. And chip milling and clear- cutting are in direct diversity to that.

TOM BEARDEN: But Champion Paper says it’s an important part of the local economy, too, providing paychecks for hundreds of loggers and truck drivers, as well as mill employees, and providing income that allows landowners to pay the taxes on their land.

CARLTON OWNENS: Here we are talking about what landowners should do with their land. Those landowners have paid for that land. They had to pay taxes and maintenance. I believe it’s unfair for society to say to a landowner that owns trees that "just because you own forest, you owe society more."

HUME DAVENPORT: So, do you see what I mean about flying that line?


TOM BEARDEN: Davenport and Murray want government to impose new regulations to stop what they consider to be the destruction of Tennessee’s forests. To that end, they’ve spent much of their time flying state legislatures and policymakers over the clear-cuts.

HUME DAVENPORT: A lot of it really simply comes down to the fact that people who live here in this part of Tennessee on the Cumberland Plateau enjoy a quality of life that revolves around an intact forest system. That means hunting, fishing, earning a living off of the land, using the wood for productive building pieces and materials, building furniture, building musical instruments. And the clear-cutting, which is driven by chip mills, robs us of that existence and for future generations to have that same existence.

TOM BEARDEN: Four federal agencies have held public hearings and are currently studying the impact of chip mills. Their report is due out next year.

JIM LEHRER: Last month, the state of Missouri declared a two-year moratorium on permits for new chip mills, the first state to do so.